Before he gets to the actual rules Cordery covers several foundational subjects. He begins with a brief (and admittedly incomplete) history of gridded wargames, focusing mostly on the earliest Kriegspiele and their various iterations in the 19th century. While Jon Peterson covers this history extensively in Playing at the World, Cordery’s nine-page overview earns merits for its numerous illustrations, informative end notes, and bibliographical inspirations (besides, I always appreciate a good, even brief, piece on the history of gaming). He also lays the groundwork for his rules by discussing hex and square grids, defining core wargaming terminology in relation to grids, and examining different ways of basing figures and tallying hits in his game. Design notes offer his rationale for various game mechanics – including his innovative “Exhaustion Point” system – in the context of outlining the basic Portable Wargame rules. Three pages of rules for playing the game solitaire offer a balanced, card-driven mechanic for activating units that allows for a degree of uncertainty.
The Portable Wargame simplifies many concepts pioneered by the Kriegspiele, condensing what was originally a time-consuming simulation exercise for military officers into an effective wargame playable within a reasonable time frame. It uses a gridded surface of whatever size players want, though inevitably far smaller than those with more than 1,000 squares in the early Kriegspiele. Like those games it also uses modular scenery pieces one can place on any grid space to simulate battlefield terrain. Pieces simulate military units; miniature wargamers would naturally gravitate toward using individually mounted or group-based figures, but one could conceivably play the game with cardboard or wooden counters representing cavalry, infantry, artillery, and other units using standardized symbols. The mechanics of moving, firing, and close combat remain far simplified from their Kriegspiel roots, but work both to demonstrate core wargaming concepts and provide a satisfying game experience. Certainly Kriegspiele have influenced modern wargaming – Cordery’s own brief history mentions the groundbreaking gridded wargame Tactics by Avalon Hill founder Charles S. Roberts II – more so in what I’d consider traditional chit-and-board games. But Cordery’s game engages the wonderful do-it-yourself spirit that often infuses hobby gaming. Players can create whatever kinds of gridded battlefields they prefer: squares, hexes, even offset squares. They can engage their creativity (or practicality) in devising modular terrain tiles and unit pieces. As in most wargames, players must develop their own playable scenarios (with varying degrees of historical accuracy).
Core Game Elements
Sample Game: Confederate
positions behind cover.
Marking a hit on the Confederate artillery.
The Portable Wargame includes a host of other notably useful or inspiring bits. “Appendix: Some Thoughts on Wargame Design” offers some insights on the subject useful whether you’re designing and writing a complete set of rules or just fine-tuning an existing system. The enlightening end notes and a bibliography provide direction for those interested in expanding their knowledge of early wargames. Roughly one-third of the book consists of turn-by-turn battle reports demonstrating game concepts, one for a Colonial-era Sudanese confrontation on a square grid and another from a World War II Eastern Front skirmish on a hex grid. Although some might take umbrage at this excessive page count for turn-by-turn examples, the well-illustrated “after action reports” show how game mechanics function; besides, as in much of the adventure gaming hobby, participants generally learn more about a game by demonstration than by just reading rules.
Put to the Test
Federal cavalry advances to try
flanking Confederate positions.
I decided to play out a skirmish between mounted Federal cavalry units charging dismounted Confederate cavalry guarding a cannon (though I decided not to use Cordery’s suggested solitaire rules just yet). The Federals had four cavalry units (3 points each, 12 total) and a commander figure (6 points) for a total of 18 strength points and an exhaustion point threshold of 6 (one-third the total). The Confederates had four cavalry skirmisher units (3 points each, 12 total) and a cannon (2 points) for 14 points total and an exhaustion point threshold of 5 (one-third rounded upward); although they had a four-point disadvantage, they started in terrain features that afforded them advantageous cover.
Bad move: Federal cavalry splits up.
|Cavalry loses its commander,|
nears exhaustion point.
The game set up and played within an hour (I later played it again with a marginal Federal victory), taking up no more space than the chess board and some sidelines for dice and eliminated units. The rules seem basic enough an experienced wargamer could easily teach them to newcomers, giving them a taste for a war-themed “board” game and its Kriegspiel heritage. Overall it was a very satisfying game experience that allowed me to explore a particular period and theater without a huge amount of preparation, time, and space. I’m already considering other American Civil War scenarios and thinking about adjusting the rules to play skirmishes in the American War of Independence. The Portable Wargame is available through Lulu.com in hard- and softcover formats ($21.82/$6.99) as well as PDF ($3.67); even without Lulu’s frequent discounts and occasional free shipping the price of the 102-page book in softcover remains quite reasonable. The game isn’t for every wargamer, but worth a try if only to experience some elements of wargaming’s Kriegspiel roots on a manageable and entertaining scale.
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